Dynasty Travel: 8D6N Colourful Hokkaido Tour, Day 4 (Part 2)

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Day 4's itinerary:
Jigokudani Hell Valley --> Ainu Village --> Asahiyama Zoo (旭山動物園) --> Asahikawa Ramen Village (旭川ラーメン村)

Once we were belly-full from lunch, we were ushered back onto the tour bus for the long trip out to Asahiyama Zoo. In fact, the journey was so long, by the time we arrived, we had only about an hour before the zoo closed. We had to hurry, so I forgot all about snapping a picture of the zoo!
It is only after writing this blog, that I realise I need to be more mindful about documenting with my camera. Next time I shall endeavour to snap a gazillion photos of everything.
The Asahiyama Zoo is a popular zoo in Hokkaido with an impressive history to boot. The Asahiyama Zoo was initially on the brink of being closed as visitor numbers were dismal and declining. However, in a never-say-die spirit, the zoo went on a process of re-inventing itself and it has now displaced Ramen and skiing as Asahikawa's primary attraction.
The Asahiyama Zoo is now home to more than 700 animals of over 120 different species. It is also the first facility in Japan to have succeeded in the natural breeding in captivity of animals that live in cold regions.
The popularity of the zoo also revolves around its concept of close proximity to their animals. The zoo had many enclosures which allow visitors to observe the animals up close and personal, and from various angles.
To get an idea of just how close you can get to the animals, check out my photos below. These were all taken without having to zoom at all! 
I suspect the polar bear exhibit is one of the zoo's main attractions as this was the first one that our tour guide Ms Reikko insisted on bringing us to. In fact, she was quite adamant that we must head to the polar bear enclosure.
Once there though, the entire tour group oohed and ahh-ed at the 2 polar bears there. We also climbed up some mini flights of stairs to get to glass dome-like structures that put us right below or next to the bears! Quite an amazing feeling staring up at the under-belly of these huge white bears!
At another point of the enclosure, we were so close to the bear, (if I was a silly twit) I could have stuck my hand in to stroke its fur! Well, obviously my fingers stayed on the safe side of the mesh fence.

Once we were done with the polar bear enclosure, we were left to roam the zoo on our own. My parents and I then headed off to check out the penguins (which happened to be very near the toilets near the polar bear enclosure).
Unfortunately, the penguin pool was closed to visitors by the time we got there. A pity since I had read that there was an underwater glass tunnel through the pool that allows visitors to watch the penguins underwater. Nevertheless, my parents and I had a few good laughs seeing the penguins in their external enclosure. They simply looked too adorable waddling up and down.
In fact the next picture is one of my favourite photos from the entire trip.
Yup. Its really up close and personal!
During the colder months, there is also a Penguin Parade! To alleviate the lack of exercise, the zoo has a walking route for these penguins! Visitors can actually wait along the route to see these penguins walking in a group! I can just imagine how kawaii!
I really think the zoo's concept of up-close and personal is simply brilliant.
Or in the case of the tiger, perhaps a little too close for comfort. Check out that stare!
In the midst of hurrying around the zoo, we heard loud howls and realised that we were near the wolves' enclosure. It's the first time I've heard a pack of wolves howling, and I have to say, I'm really glad that we were in a zoo. City girl here would have freaked out if I was stuck in a forest and hearing those howls.
Some of the other animals in the zoo included deers, monkeys, seals, a collection of birds, etc. I couldn't resist snapping a picture of the eagle. I just thought it looked like it belonged in Harry Potter's world instead.
My parents and I were quite impressed with the zoo, despite us zooming around as many enclosures as we could manage within that short hour. While I still think our Singapore Zoological Garden is the best zoo ever, the Asahiyama Zoo definitely impresses with its proximity concept. It's really no wonder why it attracts so many visitors now.
The Asahiyama Zoo is definitely one place that I would like to come back to again. In fact, I'm thinking of a winter trip, just so I can see the Penguin Parade! The penguins really stole my heart.
Once we were done with the Asahiyama Zoo, we then proceeded to the Asahikawa Ramen Village. Initially, the group was told that it was only a photo stop. Ramen has a spot on my list of favourite foods. So to tell me that I've come all the way to the Ramen Village and NOT have ramen?! I wasn't just disappointed. I was silently boiling mad.
Thankfully, the Asahikawa Ramen Village was more than just a photo-stop. *phew*
Ok. I admit. This time round, I was so upset with the initial "photo stop" that I did not bother to take my camera out to get a shot of the entire Ramen Village. Whatever photos I had from this portion of the itinerary, were taken only after I was happily seated in one of the ramen shops.
The Asahikawa Ramen Villages comprises of 8 famous ramen shops, a small gift shop and a ramen shrine. Initially, I was still wondering which one of the 8 shops to go to, but that happy problem was taken off my hands when our tour guide ushered us straight into one of my favourite:
Can you guess which famous ramen shop is this?
Yup. None other than Santouka!
Santouka is famous for its flavourful pork broth. My parents and I ordered the black pork shoyu (soy-based) ramen in mini bowls. And a plate of pan-fried gyozas to share. Super yummy. It was my parents' first experience with Santouka and they were singing praises at the end of their meal. In fact, my mummy loved it so much, she has been pestering me to bring her to the Singapore branch!
The meal marked the end of Day 4. With bellies full of delicious ramen and broth, my parents and I slept through the bus journey to our hotel.
Thoughts from Day 4:
The Ainu Village was the only forgettable portion of the itinerary for Day 4. However, I do acknowledge that we were only there for a cultural show and that explains mostly why it was forgettable in a day where we were impressed with other sights.
The Jigokudani or "Hell Valley" is a must-visit in my opinion, especially if you're the kind who enjoys landscapes. Sensitive noses, please be prepared for the sulphur stink though. Otherwise, I would recommend that you take some time to enjoy the walking trails. I myself would like to return to catch the pool, geysers and even try for the natural foot-bath.
The Asahiyama Zoo is the next highlight for the day. While the grounds are not particularly huge, you can easily spend a few hours having fun at the various enclosures. Animal/zoo-lovers will definitely appreciate the proximity to the animals. I think kids would have a great time too. The Asahiyama Zoo also operates a special zoo train during certain seasons. You might want to check it out if you are planning a trip there.
Ramen lovers would probably get a high at the Asahikawa Ramen Village. If you're not sure which ramen shop you should patronise, fret not! All the ramen shops here have mini bowls on their menu, and they are ok if you were to share your mini bowl even. Ramen-shop hopping is apparently common. However, all the 8 ramen shops have outlets all over Hokkaido. So if you can get your ramen fix elsewhere, you can save on making this trip especially since the Asahikawa Ramen Village can be quite inaccessible.
In fact, both the Asahiyama Zoo and the Asahikawa Ramen Village are quite out of the way. The zoo can still be reached by bus or train but the best way to get to the ramen village would be to drive or take a cab. If you intend to get to either destination, please do plan your schedule so as to account for the travelling time.
Tourist Information:
Asahiyama Zoo
Address: Higashi Asahikawacho Kuranuma, Asahikawa 078-8205, Hokkaido
DID: +81 166--36-1104
Operating Hours: 9:30 am to 5:15 pm (entry until 4pm) in late April to mid October,
9:30 am to 4:30 pm (entry until 4 pm) in mid October to early November,
and 10:30 am to 3:30 pm (entry until 3 pm) in mid November to early April.
Closed on 30 December to 1 January.
Closed also on a few days between the summer and winter seasons. Please check before proceeding.
Entrance fee: 820 yen
Asahiyama Zoo Train
Asahikawa Ramen Village
Address: 11-4 Nagayama, Asahikawa 079-8421, Hokkaido
Local address: 〒079-8421 北海道旭川市永山11条4丁目119-48
DID: +81 166-48-2153
Operating hours: Generally 11 am to 9 pm
Closed on 1 January, with occasional closures by individual ramen shops

Dynasty Travel: 8D6N Colourful Hokkaido Tour, Day 4 (Part 1)

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Day 4's itinerary:
Jigokudani Hell Valley (地狱谷) --> Ainu (アイヌ民族) Village --> Asahiyama Zoo --> Asahikawa Ramen Village
Day 4 saw us moving off from Lake Toya into Noboribetsu (登別), which is famous for its hot springs. Our first stop in the morning was Jigokudani also known as "Hell Valley". We were warned on the bus about the sulphur stink by our tour guide Ms Reikko. Shortly after she warned us, we knew we were near and arriving when that sulphur stink hit us even in our tour bus!

When doing my homework prior to the trip, I was already warned that some people may not be able to take the sulphur stink. And since both my mum and I suffer from really sensitive noses, we did think to pack in some masks. Unfortunately, silly us forgot to bring it along. Thankfully, the smell was still bearable even though it did smell a little like rotten eggs.

Jigokudani is a majestic display of sulphurous streams and hot steam vents. Honestly, while walking along the trails, I was desperately trying to recall what I had learnt about volcanic activities just so I could explain a little to my parents.
One of the walking trails in Jigokudani brought us down into the valley where we were able to view some of the sulphur streams and hot stream vents in closer proximity. I later learnt that Jigokudani is also the main source of Noboribetsu's hot springs.
You have to be careful on the wooden walking trail though, especially if you have older folks with you. It can get slippery or you could also trip on one of those wooden strips (ironically) put there for traction. One of our tour group members got injured trying to rescue an elderly Japanese lady from falling. Thankfully, it wasn't anything serious; he declined medical attention and the swelling in his wrist subsided after a few hours.
I was really impressed with the barren majesty of Jigokudani. So were my parents. They felt that with the stink, the heat and the barren vastness, its name of "Hell Valley" was super appropriate. It was again a pity that we could not dwell longer, as I was told by a Japanese that there were geysers, a pool and even a natural hot spring foot-bath further along the walking trail. He had offered to show us the way but we were all disappointed when I had to explain that we already had to head back to our tour bus.
Love the friendliness and graciousness of the Japanese though! 
Next stop of the day, the Ainu Village.
Our tour guide, Ms Reikko, had emphasised that we needed to be prompt leaving Jigokudani as she wanted us to catch the Ainu Cultural show. So again, once we arrived, we were very quickly ushered along by our tour guide and tour leader to a thatched hut where the show was held.
There were at least 3 other tour groups there by the time we were seated; a Korean group, a Thai group and one from Taiwan. Our emcee (picture above), spoke mainly in Japanese which was then translated by the various tour guides. Once in a while though, he would break out into Korean, Thai or Mandarin. I was super impressed when he could crack jokes in these different languages and get all of us to laugh along.
The Ainu are the indigenous people of Northern Japan, and the emcee did an amazing job of trying to explain some aspects of traditional Ainu life. The Cultural Show also depicted traditional Ainu folk dances, songs and mouth harp demonstrations. I admit, I got a little bored towards the end of the show.
As soon as we were out of the thatched hut, I spotted a little café and hurried in before anyone could stop me. We could not tour the village after the Cultural Show as again, we had to rush to the next destination, so I knew I had to be fast at the café. One of my best decision made! The baked/pan-fried pumpkin pancake I ordered was most heavenly! My apologies, no picture as I was being hassled off but it is really not to be missed if you ever get there!
On our way out, we passed by some cages where bears and the Hokkaido Hound was kept. It was explained that these animals were sacred to the Ainu people, hence their presence in the Ainu Village.
However, I thought it was pitiful that these huge animals were confined in cages that I considered small for their size. I don't blame them for being listless, and I was actually a little irritated with the aunties in our tour group who were trying to get their attention. It kind of didn't make sense to me that they were so miserably confined if these were supposed to be sacred animals to the Ainu. In fact, I know of a few friends who probably would not hesitate to call this animal abuse if they had been there with me.
Lunch was at this seafood market-cum-restaurant that's next to the Pacific Ocean. Seriously great view while dining, although I admit, I only realised it much later myself. I was too excited with the market and later my food!
Although it is mainly a seafood place, you can also pick up other produce such as fruits, vegetables and other dried stuff. However, what captivated me the most was the seafood section. I simply love my seafood and my parents knew I was terribly excited to order extra seafood to go along with our meal.
These pictures are merely a small sample of what you can find at the market - king crabs, scallops, prawns, whelks, etc. I was just simply spoilt for choice of fresh seafood!
This basket was what we picked up to add on to our lunch - a king crab, 2 whelks and 2 scallops.
Then I got greedy and added some prawns, hence the need for a second picture! LOL!
Once you are ready with your choices, send your basket to the counter where they will be prepared. Meanwhile, while the chefs wash and chop up your seafood, make your way to the second level which overlooks the ocean, and get ready for a feast!
This was the seafood hotpot that the tour had arranged for us. The hotpot was made all the more exciting when our seafood order was delivered.
I tried all the seafood both sashimi-style and boiled in the hotpot. The seafood was so fresh and sweet! Either way, it was finger-licking good. Suffice to say, I was in a seafood induced coma at the end of our lunch. I didn't think any of us minded though. It was pure seafood heaven, especially for a seafood lover like me!
Tourist Information:
Noboribetsu Tourist Association Official website: http://www.noboribetsu-spa.jp/
Jigokudani Hell Valley
Address: Noboribetsu Onsencho, Noboribetsu 059-0551, Hokkaido
Ainu Village
Address: 2-3-4 Wakakusacho, Shiraoi-gun, Shiraoi-cho 059-0902, Hokkaido
Operating Hours: 8:45 am to 5 pm
Closed from 29 December to 5 January
Entrance fees:  800 yen

Staycation: Mandarin Orchard Singapore

Monday, 7 September 2015

Interrupting the Hokkaido group tour review with one on a staycation I just enjoyed at Mandarin Orchard Singapore.
I was looking out for a way to celebrate my birthday, when I chanced upon a deal on Facebook.
Mandarin Orchard Singapore had just newly refurbished their Premier Rooms, and were offering them at a deal. This was their Facebook post that caught my eye:
The 50% discount on the room rate was the real eye-catcher. To be honest, I wasn't too impressed with the remaining details of the deal. In fact, things like free Wi-Fi are getting increasingly common in the hotel industry.
But a 50% offer on room rates on a 5-star hotel? Nope, not common at all. And when I checked it out on their website, I was so pleased , I immediately made a room reservation for 3D2N (13 to 15 August).
Total cost (including tax) = SGD$399.01
Considering that this is a 5-star hotel in the heart of Orchard Road, I thought it was a really awesome deal!
3 days before I was due to check-in, they sent a pre-arrival update via email. The email came with details of my reservations and also included a link for any arrival instructions I might have had. The welcome email also highlighted their "signature hospitality of Asian Grace, Warmth and Care".
Very promising. It's exactly little details like this that tells the guests that they are valued, and those are what make for a truly awesome experience. So, I was indeed looking forward to spending my birthday there.
Plus One for them.

Unfortunately, upon arrival, it was a slightly different story.
I was a little early reaching the hotel, arriving at about 1:40 pm, even though the email stated that check-in was after 2 pm. Having ended a birthday lunch and with nowhere to go until a movie at 2:40 pm, I decided to try my luck to see if I could check in early.
The lobby was at level 5. I managed to find my way to reception and was thankfully, able to check-in. The hotel receptionist though, seemed distracted and hassled. Initially, I enquired about getting the hotel breakfast as I didn't include it when I first made my reservations, and whether I was still entitled to the promotional offer for breakfast. After consulting a colleague (which made me wonder if she was inexperienced), I was politely told to just inform the restaurant my room number. I had to ask again to confirm that the promotional offer was still valid.
I definitely had further clarifications, since I had no other details as to where breakfast was served, what time, etc. but I held my tongue. She was definitely polite, but I had the sense that I was giving her trouble with my questions. In fact, she was so quick and distracted with processing my check-in, I felt like I was just part of a production/assembly-line. There was no friendly smile, and none of the "signature hospitality of Asian Grace, Warmth and Care" that had been advertised.
In fact, there was very little information and/or conversation provided during check-in. Nothing about the hotel's facilities. In fact, now that I think about it, not even a greeting! I even had to call later to ask for my Wi-Fi password as it was not provided to me at check-in. Eventually, I figured any other questions I had could be directed to the concierge instead, and then I could also see if that advertised hospitality was merely an advertisement.
Minus one.
I was also informed by the dispassionate receptionist that my room was not yet ready as the previous occupants had checked out late. She requested for my mobile, and shared that once my room was ready, I would receive a text message to alert me. Cool! That way, I could leave my bags and go for my movie first before coming back!
Except, I didn't even get to step out of the hotel before my phone buzzed to tell me that my room was ready. I hesitated for a moment before I decided to re-trace my steps back to the level 5 lobby to get my bags and the room keys.
I have no idea what system they are using, and perhaps this might be a freak incident of efficiency. However, I did feel a little irritation that I had to go through the hassle of depositing my bags and then coming back for them barely 5 minutes later.
The desk clerk/bell boy helping me with my bag though, was the saving grace. He was the first one who demonstrated hospitality; he remembered me and my bag right off, without me having to say much. He also seemed taken aback with the speed at which I came back for my bag, but recovered very quickly and went on to help me with the room keys.
Mandarin Orchard Singapore has two towers -  the main tower and the Orchard wing.
I was given a room on the 28th floor in the main tower, overlooking the Takashimaya Shopping Mall. I had no trouble zipping in and out but my friend who joined me later, got lost and actually went up the wrong wing. In fact, I overheard a family of tourists who had also lost their bearings until a hotel staff helped them out. Perhaps some directions might be helpful.
This was how my Premier Room looked like.
I found the room spacious and well-fitted with sleek, contemporary furnishings. I thought it was great that there was a designated work desk and a divan with an accompanying coffee table, and yet still enough walking room that I didn't feel like a clumsy Baymax. The room was pretty bright too, considering I didn't even draw the day curtains when I took the pictures. I later found out that the newly furnished Premier Rooms are located on the higher floors, and offer better views of the surrounding landscape.
The room was also clean and comfortable, two very important Cs. I have a very sensitive nose, that reacts too easily to smells and dust. It's not uncommon to hear me falling sick after a bout of dusting or cleaning. In fact, there was an occasion where I got terribly ill for two weeks, just from cleaning and packing up to move office. And another, where I went through a holiday high on sinus meds because my hotel room was shrouded in layers of dust. So by default, my nose usually ends up being my barometer for a room's cleanliness. If at the end of a day, I don't suffer from a runny nose, it usually means the place is clean enough.
Mandarin Orchard Singapore passed the nose test with flying colours.
The bathroom and toilet was immediately to the right as I entered the room. Again, it was clean and spacious. Simple shower, no bath-tub and a sprawling vanity/dressing area with two sinks. More importantly, it was well-stocked; full toilet rolls, thick fluffy towels, ample toiletries and clean robes.
Thumbs up for housekeeping!
In fact, I met the housekeeping staff on my floor on several occasions zipping in and out of my room. They were really friendly and always smiling whenever I met them. I first met the staff when I was hauling my bag trying to find my room. The auntie and uncle there saw me and immediately helped to direct me without me even asking! And the uncle quickly cleared some leftover plates spotted outside my room and apologised for it. The auntie was also very helpful when I asked for extra towels having spilled quite a bit of water and fussed about me not having enough towels for myself after that.

Room service and the concierge also deserved to be mentioned. They were very prompt with my requests. After speaking with the concierge about my queries with regard to the hotel facilities, I requested for wine glasses to be sent up to my room. They arrived within 15 minutes. Amazing efficiency!

And the room service staff who attended to our room was completely unfazed when I asked for help to open a bottle of wine. The cork had broken off and we just couldn't get it out. He tried with the cock-screw but failed as well. Then he took the initiative to ask for permission to bring it to his colleagues for help and left the room with our bottle. Again, within 15 minutes, our wine was returned un-corked AND in a ice-bucket.
Finally, the "signature hospitality of Asian Grace, Warmth and Care" that was advertised.
Major plus points.
Facility wise, Mandarin Orchard Singapore boosts of an outdoor pool, a tennis court and an indoor gym. I made use of the pool early morning as I noticed that it would get crowded in the afternoons when I was there. It wasn't a big pool, but enough that I could still do laps and get my exercise quota done.
I didn't see the gym myself but my friend who checked it out, mentioned that it was adequate with the necessary machines, weights and bosu balls.
What I really liked about Mandarin Orchard Singapore was its location in Orchard.
Take the hotel lift down and I'm in the middle of Mandarin Gallery.  Orchard Cineleisure is next to it, making it easy to drop by for a movie or two. There's a starbucks right outside too and hence not too troublesome to get my daily dose of caffine. Plus, the hotel is surrounded by shopping malls. Shopping and dining galore!
So convenient, I didn't even get to try the hotel's famed restaurants:
Chatterbox - renowned for its chicken rice, and
Shisen Hanten - Szechwan restaurant helmed by third generation Chen Kentaro, son of famed Iron Chef Chen Kenichi.
Another check in the plus box.
However, I did get my breakfast buffet at Triple Three.
The breakfast buffet selection was quite varied; there was a decent spread of bread and pastries, Western and Asian breakfast items. Taste-wise, it was passable. Nothing impressive.
However, what marred the breakfast experience was again the hassled feeling I sensed. Perhaps, the hotel was at peak and there was just too many people. I had the feeling that the staff were overwhelmed and not able to cope. My table was cleared just before I took my seat. Plates, cups and food kept running out and refills took some time. Queues were snaking at some of the more popular food stations, e.g. the omelette station.
And staff were so harried and busy, it felt like they were just dumping stuff and people at tables:
*Points* That's your table *scoot off*
(I didn't even have the chance to turn around to confirm the table with the staff)
Here's your cutlery *dump and scoot off*
There was no way they were paying attention to details. So they obviously didn't notice the plastic that was still stuck to my cutlery. Neither did the waitress notice the full cup at the next table when she was trying to squeeze past and that resulted in a spill.
The cashier probably also didn't notice that she had presented differing prices I had asked to check for the promotional breakfast offer. My first bill indicated that it was SGD$28. When she realised that I had requested for the promotional offer, she returned with a second "corrected" bill where the breakfast buffet was priced at more than SGD$30 before the discount.
Extremely slip-shod and distasteful.
Check-out was also less than stellar. Assuming that check-in and check-out times would entail peak traffic at the reception, there was only one person manning each counter. Queues formed and I overheard some tourists complaining about not having enough staff, or worrying about being late for their flight. Apart from that, the check-out process was simple enough. Just impersonal.
Thoughts on the staycation:
On the whole, while it was not a completely pleasant experience, I did enjoy my staycation. I had a peaceful time in my room and apart from the restaurant and reception, was made to feel welcomed by the staff. However, with those little less-than-stellar episodes, I would think twice about recommending the hotel to someone else. Particularly since not everyone would get to experience the housekeeping or room service staff, but everyone definitely has to go through the reception. In fact, I would think twice myself if I were to consider another staycation. Unless, of course, it was again set at an unbeatable price offer.
Hotel Contact Information
Mandarin Orchard Singapore
Address: 333 Orchard Road, Singapore 238867
Tel: (65)­ 6737 4411
Fax (65)­ 6732 2361
Website: http://www.meritushotels.com/en/mandarin-orchard-singapore/index.html
Reservations: resvn.orchard@meritushotels.com
General enquiries: orchard@meritushotels.com